Fountain Pen Design

Function, Development, Construction and Fabrication

7.2 Eyedropper

The myths created by advertisers tell us that the fountain pen was invented by Lewis E. Waterman as a result of him losing an insurance contract due to spilled ink. Although this story has been debunked (For example: see this document), it continues to be re-told, probably merely due to the fact that, given the choice between a good story and the truth, many people will often choose the former. However, although Waterman’s 1884 patent (US Patent 307,735) certainly does not describe the first fountain pen, it does give a well-illustrated explanation of its simplest incarnation: a “barrel or tube for containing the ink” with the section assembly screwed on to the end.

Figure from Waterman’s 1884 patent

Waterman’s patent makes no mention of how the reservoir is to be filled, however this is probably taken for granted, since it was already a not-uncommon practice for example, for “stylographic” pens (with a narrow tube housing a movable wire to stop the flow of ink from the barrel). As Mark Twain wrote in a letter to Dr. John Brown in 1880: “Do you notice what clean manuscript this ‘stylographic’ pen makes? You fill the handle of it with a single squirt of ink from a glass medicine-dropper, & it won’t have to be filled again for a week.”

This “glass medicine-dropper” that Twain mentions is today what we call an eyedropper, since its primary use is for relieving the dry eyes of hay fever sufferers each spring.

Today, the method of filling such a pen is the same as it was in Twain’s day. You:

  • unscrew the section assembly from the barrel,
  • securely stand the barrel on-end, open end facing upwards
    (brave souls can hold it in their free hand),
  • drop ink into the barrel until it is filled
    (but not too much!),
  • screw the section assembly back onto the barrel.
    (A little sealant on the section threads helps to prevent leaking.)

This means, however, that an eyedropper is really not a “filling system”; it’s merely a reservoir to be filled with ink.